Drew Weing Channels '70s Kids Lit and Philosophical Monsters in The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo

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Drew Weing Channels '70s Kids Lit and Philosophical Monsters in <i>The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo</i>

We’re currently in an age of wonderful kids’ comics and wonderful grown-up comics, but it’s hard to find sequential art that speaks to both audiences. Drew Weing’s The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, a serialized strip that’s been running since February 2014, is that rare creation that does. Sure, its protagonists are kids and its action never veers past a PG extreme, but its stories are neither dumb nor dumbed-down. An adult can read them for pure pleasure without needing the excuse of a child, and a 6-year-old can read them and thrill to the taste of danger and independence that lie in her future. And both can now enjoy the comic in print as publisher First Second has collected the first three stories in a handsome hardback, released last month.

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Weing has never made a comic that works solely on one level, from Set to Sea (a pirate story that’s also about pirate stories) to Flop to the Top (a Toon Books collaboration with his wife, Eleanor Davis, that injects contemporary celebrity culture into a kids’ book about a dog). Margo Maloo is no different. It can be read as a straightforward adventure story about monsters, or readers can appreciate its painstaking and beautifully rendered art, and/or you can exercise your analytical skills and pull out its metaphors about expanding horizons to see the value in other cultures. It’s delicate and thoughtful in a way that very little material for children is. As it turns out, Weing draws a lot of inspiration from the kinds of kids’ books published some decades ago that were similarly unafraid to create a big, dark world for their readers. The cartoonist chatted with Paste about Margo Maloo’s origin, character design, coloring and what makes him put so much on the page.
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Paste: Talk to me about character design. Charles is all soft and round, where Margo is full of angles and Kevin sticks out in all directions. How long did it take you to figure out what they should look like?

Drew Weing: Some art school teacher pitched me this idea years ago, and I still hold to it: that if you lined up all of the characters in your comic, and took a marker and blacked in all the details, you still ought to be able to pick each one out instantly from their silhouette.

Margo started as a co-creation between my wife and myself. Years ago, we were trying to come up with a comic we could pitch as a one-page serial to Nickelodeon Magazine, and we came up with this monster mediator character by passing a sketchbook back and forth, tweaking her design and adding details. The serial never happened, but I kept Margo in the back of my mind for years, thinking up new monster details. I eventually realized she needed a sidekick of some type—Margo was much too laconic to properly introduce a new reader to her world. The first sidekick designs were a shrimpy, nervous little kid, but suddenly this chunky, assertive Charles jumped off the page, almost fully-formed. And Kevin materialized from a nosy little neighbor kid I had in Savannah, who really was all elbows and knees.

Paste: How did you design Echo City? If I know you, I’d say you spent a lot of time on that map and you have a pretty good understanding of the whole city even though we only get to see a little bit of it in these three stories. It is definitely not a college town like Athens [where you and I both live]!

Weing: I smooshed together New York and Chicago and all the other big cities that I’ve visited. I’m pretty amazed sometimes that I didn’t end up in one of them, at least for a few years. This way I get to exorcise my Big City FOMO, at least a little bit. I like to do much of my city exploration on foot, so I end up in a lot of weird liminal spaces. Eleanor could tell you about the time we almost ended up late to a medal reception for one of her books, because we got lost in the service tunnels of Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center. I wanted lots of spaces like that in Echo City.

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The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo Interior Art by Drew Weing

Paste: Your color palette seems nicely worked out: a lot of browns with occasional blues and reds. What’s the philosophy there? Did you try other schemes?

Weing: I didn’t set out to make any sort of pastiche, but I’ve soaked up a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s kids-book color schemes that probably bleed through. I do all my coloring digitally, and you get so many options and shortcuts in Photoshop that colorists often go overboard with shading and highlights and fluorescent color palettes. So I purposefully chose a set of colors at the beginning—purples, tans, reds—that I try to stick to. Also, to get a little handcrafted element into each page, I hand-scribble in each area of color instead of using a shortcut. It takes forever, but gives me a certain meditative feeling, just like those adult coloring books.

Paste: Are you more like Charles or more like his adventurous, free-range parents?

Weing: Every new generation finds some way to bemuse the preceding one, huh? I still see a ton of kids media where the parents are still suit-and-tie squares who exist solely to thwart their kids’ fun, but all the young parents I know are raised-in-the-’90s hipsters. Yet their kids still find new ways to baffle them. I thought it’d be fun to have a kid who was more conservative than his parents—I think a lot of kids have a pretty strong conservative streak, in the non-political sense of the term. Personally, I was a very fastidious, picky kid who grew into an ever-so-slightly more adventurous adult. I wouldn’t have eaten saag paneer either.

Paste: If there’s a hidden message here, is it: get out of your house, à la Pokemon GO? How much do we need that message?

Weing: Nah, I’ve got all-new hidden morals in this one!

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The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo Interior Art by Drew Weing

Paste: Like what? Sometimes this book feels like urban planning studies for wee ones. How much do you think about gentrification?

Weing: I never want to get into one-to-one metaphorical territory or beat anyone over the head, but of course the monsters in the book are a community that’s invisible at best, feared at worst and constantly forced into the margins of our own. And Charles’ family isn’t rich, but they’ve certainly got it better than a lot of other people who already live in Echo City. And Echo City itself, like many American cities, is undergoing a lot of change. I’m going to keep exploring that as the story goes forward. But it’s always going to be a story about big hairy monsters.

Paste: What children’s literature inspired these story? A bit of Harriet the Spy? What else?

Weing: There’s a certain breed of ‘60s and ‘70s young adult book, like Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Cricket in Times Square, others—with an urban, sophisticated tone, that captivated this Virginia kid growing up in the middle of the woods. You’ve got a grand stage in the unceasing activity of the Big City, but these secret microcosms that only kids can explore, that most adults are blind to. I put a lot of Eloise in there too—for instance, the chandelier in the first story is basically out of the Plaza Hotel.

Most of these old YA books had a couple dozen very fine illustrations sprinkled throughout, and as a kid I always wondered why some scenes were depicted but not others. The nice thing about a comic is that the illustrations just keep going.

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The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo Interior Art by Drew Weing

Paste: All those influences you mention have this kind of overwhelming, crammed aesthetic. There are just a million things to look at or think about. Do you think that’s your aesthetic or does it just go with the territory? (Compare, also, your and Joey Weiser’s “Pirates Ahoy” Spongebob story, which is about the mindset of the collector.)

Weing: Ha, that was a fun one. I think I just always enjoyed art with a lot of “tooth,” details to catch your eye and give you a reason to look deeper. Bill Elder was always my favorite Mad Magazine artist, for instance. Really sparse, clean cartoon art always gave me the vague sense that I was being cheated.

Paste: Margo Maloo is an online serial (still ongoing). Why did you decide to try that format? How did you decide on the dimensions?

Weing: Since Margo was born out of a one-pager idea, I alway knew that there’d be a serial nature to the story, as Margo took on a new case each story. Even as the story got larger and more complex, I always knew I wanted to present it serially, at least at first. As a reader I like how engaged the experience of a serialized story can be. You spend more time with each page, instead of just plowing through pages, which is gratifying to a cartoonist who puts way too much time into drawing all these little details. You can also get with other readers, noticing clues and speculating what’ll happen. But I love books too! I always planned on it being collected as a book, and finding a whole new audience that way. I’m really trying to have my cake and eat it too, format-wise.

Just practically, I presented the page in roughly the same dimensions of a typical widescreen computer monitor, so you could see the whole thing without scrolling. And when I got the advance copies of the book back from the publisher, they kinda reminded me of those old Garfield hardbacks I loved as a kid, where Garfield would go back to the big city to find his mom or go camping, or whatever—so that worked pretty well for me.

Paste: What’s it like to plan your story out along those kinds of beats, where you know your reader will be pausing for a couple of days before the narrative continues?

Weing: I usually write out the whole chapter in one go, but I just naturally think of pages as units, where there’s some little story beat each page—even if it’s not a big cliffhanger or a punchline. My hope is that the reading experience as a book is natural.

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The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo Interior Art by Drew Weing

Paste: How long do you plan to continue it? Has that changed?

Weing: There’s an end to the story, but I still don’t know how long it’ll take Charles and Margo to get there! I hope they’ll let me keep making these books until then.

Paste: What’s your favorite thing to draw in Margo Maloo? Monsters? Piles of junk? Graffiti?

Weing: Heh, I keep painting myself into these corners where I decide it would be really fun for a scene to take place in a huge pile of junk, or on a complicated staircase, or in a room full of pipes and machinery. And it IS really fun to draw… for the first panel or two of that scene. Then you slowly realize just how many more pages full of complicated staircase you have left to go.

Paste: Speaking of graffiti, there’s a ton here! Why so much? Do you go down to the train tracks for inspiration or what?

Weing: Ha ha, I have been down to those train tracks many times. I love graffiti (though I’m no expert) because it turns walls and alleys and train cars into stories, basically. Sometimes scary stories!

Paste: You’ve started using Patreon with this strip. How’s that going? Do you think it’s a good model?

Weing: I think it’s an amazing idea if it works with your particular medium. Serialized comics are a particularly good fit.

Paste: Is it weird to find yourself doing so much kids material?

Weing: I’m just one of those repugnant adults who only got dragged kicking and screaming out of childhood, so I’m not surprised at all that I’m making kids books now. I don’t think there’s a day that I don’t scratch my head and wonder a little bit that I’m married with a house and a car and all that. I guess that’s pretty common nowadays, but I think it’s better to acknowledge it, instead of just demanding the same kids entertainment with more blood and sex.

Also, if you’re an author gunning for relevance, it’s easier to hit a kid right in that sweet spot, where a book read at the right age can become a life-long touchstone. I think about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Phantom Tollbooth way more often than I think about Ulysses, though I love them all.

Paste: There’s some nice bonus material here. The pages on the different types of monsters remind me of that book Gnomes with their spidery writing and sketches.

Weing: Absolutely. Or that Froud/Lee Fairies book. I’ve always been a sucker for those quasi-zoological books of fantasy creatures.

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